Set in a valley surrounded by green mountains, Bilbao first rose to prominence as an important industrial hub where the steel manufacturing and shipbuilding sectors once dominated city life.
After years of economic stagnation starting in the 1970s, it was given a makeover with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and a revamping of the metro system under the guidance of Sir Norman Foster.
Today, Bilbao is not only an ideal destination for lovers of arts, culture, and design, but also an important location for Spain’s Basque people. As such, the city offers a truly unique and eclectic mix of cosmopolitan excellence and Basque culinary flair.
Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in Bilbao.
Have a stroll, admiring the boutiques, gardens, bakeries, tranquil plazas and parks that comprise Bilbao.
One particularly aesthetically pleasing example of this is Moyúa Square.
It’s no secret that the most significant attraction drawing tourists to the city is the bodacious titanium giant that is the Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997. It can be a lot to take in!
Art lovers and the culturally curious can build up to a visit to the “Googen” by giving the city’s other museums and intellectual hubs a visit. After working your way through Esnanche, you’ll wind up in Abando where the pristine grounds of Parque Doña Casilda Iturrizar are located.
Adjacent to the park is the Fine Arts Museum. Here, myriad works of art are on display from across Europe, with emphasis on Spanish and Basque painters. The museum is also known to hold some very well curated exhibitions featuring a number of different artistic movements including impressionism as well as works by Goya, El Greco, Arroyo and more.
From here, it’s also well worth admiring the Azkuna Zentroa cultural center, a former wine warehouse revamped by Philippe Starck that is perhaps the best of its kind in Europe and definitely one of the largest. It is an ode to the importance the city places on providing cultural resources to its citizens and is something of a library on steroids, complete with an indoor swimming pool and a cinema.
As afternoon turns to evening, pop into Bar El Globo, identifiable by its glowing neon sign, for the first round — likely of many — of pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, typically featuring bread topped with myriad combinations of delicious local ingredients ranging from anchovies, peppers, croquettes, cheese, and more.
Pair yours with some txakoli, refreshing chilled wine also distinct to the Basques.
El Globo is also a good place to meet locals, as it is less frequented by tourists. For those interested in architecture, see if you can spot some of the somber remnants of fascism in the buildings adjacent to the restaurant leftover from the days of Francisco Franco.
As is customary in most of Spain, the day starts rather late in Bilbao. While it’s always an option to adjust your itinerary to match, you could also take those quiet hours before the city comes to life to do some exploring.
Start out wandering the winding labyrinthine streets of Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s old town. Locally nicknamed the siete calles for the seven main streets that comprise it, this neighborhood dates back centuries. Be sure to admire the neo-baroque Teatro Arriaga and impressive gothic St. James Cathedral on your way.
If you’re feeling hungry, grab some fresh bread or a pastry at Labeko Okindegia, an organic, very authentic little spot specializing in Spanish and French breads and confections.
As you nibble on your breakfast, walk along the Nervión River perhaps taking a few moments to linger at the water’s edge admiring the colorful houses whose foundations plunge directly into the water below.
This route will not only deliver you to the Guggenheim, but also take you past lots of other interesting modern art and sculpture including the Zubizuri Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and the many different sculptures on the museum grounds like Maman, an enormous spider standing nine meters tall designed by Louise Bourgeois.
Once you’ve had your fill of Richter, Rothko, Beuys, and Warhol at the Guggenheim, you’ll probably find you’re hungry and that city life has picked up pace since you set out exploring earlier in the morning.
Return to Casco Viejo and have a leisurely lunch at Baster, a standout modern tapas bar specializing in Iberian food like Spanish tortilla made of gooey warm potatoes and egg.
It’s really one of the best eateries in the city.
Afterward, check out some of the street performances and shops situated throughout the old cobblestone streets. La Queseria gets a strong recommendation here, as it is a great place to purchase some classic Basque cheese, called Etorki and made from sheep’s milk. They also sell an array of local wines, chocolate, and more.
From Casco Viejo, you can also access other areas of interest including Plaza Nueva, a historic enclave filled with bars and stands selling various artisanal wares. For dinner, treat yourself to some fancy pintxos at Victor Montes, paired again, of course, with plenty of txakoli.
Begin your Sunday with a walk around Mercado de Ribera, the city’s oldest food market, whose origins date back to the 14th century. Peruse stalls of vendors selling everything from local berries to jamón and cheese. Once you’ve sufficiently worked up an appetite, have lunch at nearby Restaurant Mina, reasonably priced and renowned, this Michelin starred establishment offers elevated variations on Basque cuisine and is certainly a gem in the city that’s not to be missed.
Sunday afternoon is a good time to take a trip to one of several points of interest surrounding Bilbao. A few worth looking into are the beach and lookout point at Arrietara-Atxabiribil, characterized by its unique rock formations.
For Game of Thrones fans, Bilbao is located within an hour’s drive — and accessible by bus — from a couple of different sites used in filming the show.
One is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, the sprawling stone staircase by the sea where Jon Snow and Daenerys meet for the first time in season seven. The other is Itzurun Hondartza, which you will recognize at the Targaryen’s castle in Dragonstone.
For foodies, there’s also the Basque Culinary Center of Donostia, in nearby San Sebastian, which is itself a very romantic beach town and home to a number of excellent restaurants. At the culinary center, you can go on a guided tour of the kitchens, classrooms, and workshops where prominent local chefs and their pupils work.
Head back to Bilbao after the outing to finish the weekend the right way: with a final round of pintxos or other Basque culinary classics like fish a la plancha, bean stew, or squid cooked in its own ink at Café Iruñaa, a veteran eatery with gorgeous hand painted tile walls.
Once your weekend concludes, it may be time to head home — with a full belly and a bit more cultural knowledge than you came with. Alternatively, you may want to consider extending your vacation to one of many nearby destinations including the French Basque Country with a trip to Biarritz or a stay in Mundaka, a major surf spot in the region.
Either way, a weekend in Bilbao will provide a robust and memorable experience making it arguably one of the most interesting and underrated spots in Iberia.
About the author:
Lily Cichanowicz is an American freelance writer and journalist currently based in Berlin. In the form of cultural analysis, her writing is a critical exploration of everything from the personal to the political, and her aim is to share the insights she has with readers.
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